Non-Pagan history describes familiars as low-ranking demons in constant
attention to Witches for the purpose of carrying out spells and bewitchments.
Familiars usually assumed animal forms – cats, toads, owls, mice and dogs seem
to have been the most common – though virtually any animal or insect could be
suspected. In the Witchcraft Trials, if so much as a fly buzzed in the window
while someone suspected of being a witch was being questioned or tried, it was
said to be her (or his) familiar. The inquisitors took the Bile to heart: those
who had familiars were “an abomination unto the Lord” and should be “Put to
death: they shall stone them with stones: Their blood shall be upon them” (Lev.
Familiars – also called imps – were said to be given to Witches by the Devil or
bought or inherited from other Witches. A Witch could have several of them. Cats
were the favored forms, especially black ones. The fear that all cats were
Witches’ familiars was one of the primary reasons for the famous cat massacres
that swept through medieval Europe.
Familiars were given names like any household pet, which most of them undoubt-
edly were. Perhaps the best known familiar name is Pyewackett, the moniker the
Witch’s cat in the movie Bell, Book and Candle, and a name that dates back to
Renaissance England. Pyewackett, Matthew Hopkins (the famous Witch hunter)
stated, was a name “no mortal could invent.”
During the Witch hysteria of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the obsession with
familiars was confined mostly to England and Scotland, where they are mentioned
in numerous trial records, especially those related to Hopkins. The Witchcraft
Act of 1604 made it a felony to “consult, convene with, entertain, employ, feed,
or reward any evil and wicked spirit to or for any intent or purpose.” But the
Malleus Maleficarum (1486), the major Witch inquisitor’s handbook, offers no
instructions concerning familiars in the interrogation and trial of Witches. The
book does acknowledge that an animal familiar “always works with the Witch in
There is a scant evidence of familiars in early American Witch trials. In the
Salem Trials in 1692, John Bradsheet was indicted for “inciting a dog to
afflict.” The dog was tried and hanged as a Witch.
Outside of Witch trials, more benevolent familiars were believed to exist,
serving wizards and wise men (and women) who were magicians or village healers.
The familiars helped diagnose illnesses and the sources of bewitchment and were
used for divining and finding lost objects and treasures. Magicians conjured
them in rituals, then locked then in bottles, rings and stones. They sometimes
sold them as charms, claiming the spirits would ensure success in gambling,
love, business or whatever the customer wanted. This sort of familiar was
technically not illegal; England’s Witchcraft Act of 1604 prohibited only evil
and wicked spirits. Some
familiars were said to be Faeries. Oberon was a popular name for fairy familiars
in 15th and 16th century England.
Many modern Witches have animal familiars, usually cats, which are their magical
helpers. Some also have dogs, birds, snakes or toads. Witches do not believe the
familiars are “demons” or spirits in animal form but simply animals whose
psychic attunement makes them ideal partners in magical workings. Some Witches
say that it is possible to endow pets with magical powers and turn them into
familiars, though others don’t believe it should be done. Still others believe
familiars are never “pets” (and should never be treated as such) but are animals
who volunteer to work as familiars and are Karmically attracted to Witches.
Witches who do not have familiars send out psychic “calls” to draw the right
Familiars reputedly are sensitive to psychic vibrations and power and are
welcomed partners inside the magic circle and other magical work. They also
serve as psychic radar, reacting visibly to the presence of any negative or evil
energy, whether it be an unseen force or a person who dabbles in the wrong kind
of magic. Familiars are also given psychic protection by their Witches. Some
Witches it seems also use the term familiar to describe thought-forms created
magically and empowered to carry out a certain task on the astral plane.
Sorcerers and shamans in cultures around the world also have helpers in the form
of spirits. Dispatching them on errands to heal, harm or kill – called sending.
The physical shape of a familiar varies. New Guinea sorcerers rely on snakes and
crocodiles, while in Malaya, the familiar is usually an owl or badger passed
down from generation to generation.
Throughout Africa, the wild creatures of the bush are said to be Witches’
familiars: for the Lugbara, they are said to be the toad, snake, lizard, water
frog, bat, owl, leopard, jackal and a type of monkey that screeches in the
night; for the Dinka, they are black cobras and hyenas. The Zulus’ familiars are
said to be corpses dug up and re-animated with magic; they are sent out at on
night errands to scare travelers with their shrieking and pranks. In Shamanism,
a novice shaman acquires his familiar spirits, usually manifesting in animal,
reptile or bird shapes, when he completes
his initiation. He or she may send them out to do battle in his or her place,
but if they die, so does the shaman. Familiars usually stay with their shaman
until death, then disappear. Among certain Eskimos, the familiar is embodied in
an artificial seal, not a live animal.
In closing, what I usually instruct in this area is that the student of magic
who feels that they have found a familiar is that they should practice an
exercise called “Trading Places” by Keith Harry. This exercise is simple enough
to memorize and to practice, and though it was not written specifically for
bonding with an animal familiar it was designed for becoming familiar with an
animal, and inducing a mystical experience. I think you will readily discern its
value in the acquiring of a familiar.
TRADING PLACES EXERCISE
To trade places (mentally) with a dog or cat, or other animal.
Home, Zoo, Wilderness, etc.
1. Relax your body as completely as you can. Calm your mind, eliminating all
thoughts which do not relate to your intent and purpose. Sit so that you are
comfortable, and as nearly as possible on the same level with the animal you
will be working with. Lie down if you like. The important thing is that you are
able to comfortably make eye contact with your animal partner in this exercise.
It is also important to satisfy yourself that the animal is likewise comfortable
and secure with you.
2. Take a deep breath. As you slowly exhale, look into the animal’s eyes, and
imagine that a part of your awareness is being transmitted through your breath
into the animal’s mind. Watch the animal breathe, and imagine that a part of its
awareness is being transmitted into your mind.
3. Continue looking directly into the animal’s eyes until you fell your
consciousness merge with the animal’s consciousness.
As the boundaries between you and the animal dissolve, you may feel as if
you’ve really traded places with a member of another species, as though a part
of you has become the animal – this is the height of subjective merging. You may
begin to feel compassion for another species. You’ll also probably recognize
some of the artificial differences between the human and animal worlds. You may
be able to feel or sense the actual flow of the animals emotions and mental
imagery. Should you accomplish this then it should be no trouble for you to
contract with the animal to serve as your
magical partner. Asking another to become such a partner also places upon you
the responsibility of becoming its partner. I would not recommend contracting an
animal to become your familiar and then treating the animal as a pet. A pet is
something you possess, own. A Familiar, to my way of thinking, is an individual
who has entered into a mutually beneficial relationship (partnership) with you,
and therefore should be afforded the respect and consideration due a partner.